One of the first recorded incidences of racial and ethnic profiling occurred in 1215 when Pope Innocent III decreed that, “Jews and Saracens [Muslims] of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.” Following the decree, the use of badges became widespread throughout Europe and continued until very late in the eighteenth century.
In September 1939, seven hundred and twenty-four years after Pope Innocent’s decree, authorities in Poland announced that, “We are returning to the Middle Ages. The yellow patch once again becomes a part of Jewish dress. Today an order was announced that all Jews, no matter what age or sex, have to wear a band of "Jewish-yellow.” Two years later, on September 1, 1941, badges were issued to Jews within Germany as well as occupied Poland. This badge was the yellow Star of David with the word "Jude" ("Jew") and worn on the left side of the chest.
Now, Arizona’s legislature has passed a bill that would require police officers to check the immigration status of anyone if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that person may be in the country illegally. Republican governor Jan Brewer is deciding whether to sign the bill. “Reasonable suspicion” is not clearly defined. But it’s obvious that anyone who “looks” Latino, just like anyone who looked Jewish, could be stopped and required to produce documentation proving they are legally in the country.
Under current federal law, states and local agencies can voluntarily sign up with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to act with federal authority in enforcing US immigration laws only while making arrests for local or state crimes. The Arizona measure would drop that key stipulation and compel police to pick up illegal immigrants “when practicable.” Citizens could even sue officials to compel such enforcement.
With no safeguards against illegal profiling by police who may be prejudiced against Latino immigrants, the measure would most certainly lead to civil rights abuses and might undermine efforts in Congress to solve the problem of more than 10 million illegal immigrants living in the US. In addition, if Latinos fear arbitrary detention by police, they will no doubt be less likely to cooperate or assist law enforcement in targeting criminals.
Not surprisingly, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have sent a letter to Arizona's governor urging her to veto the bill. If passed, they said the bill "would make state and local law enforcement officers' jobs nearly impossible, and would bring us further from, not closer to, the goal we all share of making our communities safer." The bill would also “cause hardship to countless Arizona residents -- U.S. citizens, legal immigrants, and undocumented immigrants alike -- who if this law is passed will live under a cloud of suspicion and fear."
Arizona’s actions should be a wakeup call to the President and Congress. They must act quickly to reform our immigration system before states are allowed to return to those wonderful years of racial and ethnic profiling.